C. J. McCollum understands how rare an N.B.A. prospect he is. After all, no N.B.A. team has drafted a Lehigh player.
That trend will be broken Thursday night when McCollum, a 6-foot-3 guard, is expected to be a lottery pick, even though he played only 12 games as a senior.
“I’m thankful I can be the first player to get drafted from Lehigh University,” McCollum, who graduated with a degree in broadcast journalism, said Wednesday. “It means a lot to me. They accepted me and they gave me a chance.”
McCollum, the first freshman to be named Patriot League player of the year, averaged 23.9 points, 5 rebounds and 2.9 assists as a senior before breaking a bone in his left foot in January. As a junior, he averaged 21.9 points, the fifth highest in the country. He also led Lehigh to Patriot League tournament championships in 2010 and 2012.
Duke fans and a national television audience were introduced to McCollum and his teammates in the first round of the 2012 N.C.A.A. tournament, when the 15th-seeded Mountain Hawks, from Bethlehem, Pa., stunned the No. 2-seeded Blue Devils, 75-70.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski said McCollum, who had 30 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists, was the best player on the court.
“It increased the overall perception of the university,” Lehigh Coach Brett Reed said.
When Commissioner David Stern calls McCollum to the Barclays Center stage Thursday, it will be a proud moment for him, his family and Lehigh. The university’s athletic department and alumni association have worked all week to alert students, faculty and alumni to watch the draft.
Mike Connor, the alumni association’s president, said he remembered missing most of an Allman Brothers concert at the Beacon Theater, along with other Lehigh graduates, in order to watch McCollum and the Mountain Hawks beat Duke on television.
“We all feel really strongly about him and the kind of image that he is going to reflect on the university,” Connor said. “Basketball has that visibility and that spark, and I think it’s going to be enormously valuable to the university.”
Four years ago, most midmajor Division I programs worried that McCollum could not be successful at that level. Akron and Eastern Michigan recruited him but did not offer him a scholarship.
The Lehigh assistant coach Matt Logie was the first to urge McCollum to think about becoming a Mountain Hawk. Logie, who was one of the first scholarship players in the university’s history, said he wanted to find a player who could transform the program.
“We were looking for the type of players that would have better careers than I did,” said Logie, now the coach at Whitworth University in Spokane, Wash. “To be a part of that process in bringing in somebody like C. J. has really done wonders for the program.”
McCollum said that, growing up in Canton, Ohio, he was better at baseball than basketball. He learned how to pitch from his grandfather, James Harrison Andrews, who he said played in the Negro leagues. But McCollum’s mother, Kathy Andrews, made him pick one sport to master. McCollum said he chose basketball for two reasons: he was allergic to grass, and he thought baseball was boring.
McCollum, the Patriot League’s career scoring leader, could have jumped to the N.B.A. after his junior year. Some analysts projected him to be a late first-round pick. But he returned for his senior year because he had promised his mother he would earn his degree and he wanted to be loyal to Lehigh. He also wanted to return to the N.C.A.A. tournament.
“He was willing to risk injury and to risk additional scrutiny because he thought his game could continue to grow,” Reed said.
Still, he said that was not the biggest challenge for him at Lehigh.
“I’m at a school where the academic load is very hard,” McCollum said, adding: “We were forced to go to the class. I think the professor-to-student ratio was nine to one. They knew me as Christian James McCollum from Canton, Ohio.”
His foot injury healed, McCollum impressed teams at the N.B.A. scouting combine and in individual workouts. He also knows how to promote himself.
“I always tell teams when I meet with them that I’m a guy who could have played yesterday in the N.B.A. game,” he said.
“A lot of guys in this draft can’t say that,” he added. “But I can confidently say that because I know the time and work I put in and how serious I take the game.”
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